Think locally, act locally

Local activists goad local governments to deliver services

Police fire water cannons at people of Khokana protesting against the road-expansion drive in Kathmandu

Consider these events:

  • In May, residents and traders burned tyres to block the Chabahil-Jorpati road, signalling their frustration at long-delayed construction on the dusty, crater-filled stretch. They succeeded in sparking action, but after upgrading work stalled, protests erupted again last week in a bid to force the contractor to finish the job.
  • The road blocking trend morphed into poster protests, where the faces of delinquent road contractors were plastered to poles and vehicles. This included Nagarkot, where contractor Sharada Prasad Adhikari, also the landlord of Nepal Communist Party Co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal, was targeted. The tactic spread further, with Mayor Bhim Parajuli of Biratnagar being publicly shamed last week.
  • Residents attempting to stop road-building in Baitadi in October were turned on by an excavator operator, whose shocking attack with the machine injured eight people. Attempted murder charges are pending.
  • In Udaypur last week, locals clashed with police after seizing more than a dozen dump trucks and an excavator that were being used to gouge sand and rocks out of a local river.
  • Residents of Charikot of Dolakha District took to the streets last week to protest the lack of progress in repairing the Jiri Highway. They blocked the main intersection to vehicular traffic for hours.

When local government elections were held in 2017 after a 20-year gap, hopes were high for improved service delivery at the community level. Anecdotally, at least here in the Kathmandu Valley, that hasn’t happened. But asked in a survey last year about local service delivery, Nepalis in general were ‘broadly favourable, with cautious optimism’ about infrastructure development.

Read also: Survey is wakeup call for Nepal Government, Rameshwor Bohora

The public opinion poll, conducted by Kathmandu University School of Arts, Interdisciplinary Analysts and The Asia Foundation, found that the number of people who believed that the new federal system improved the capacity of local government to deliver services like health, education, access to justice and information, and local infrastructure development rose to 45.20% in 2018 compared to 34.8% in2017. More than 70% of respondents said they felt that their local government representatives ‘strongly care’ or ‘care’ about them.

No doubt, roads and bridges are being built, but these works, long seen by many as the measure of the country’s development, are proving controversial. During the recent monsoon, sloppily built local roads were said to be the cause of many landslides, destroying homes, temporarily obstructing access to commercial centres and in some cases killing local people. Partially built bridges collapsed when flood waters swirled around their foundations.

Given the lack of action -- or in some cases oversight -- by elected governments, it appears that local people have stepped in to fill the gap. Or could it be that the process of electing local officials also emboldened residents themselves to get active?

Both factors play a part, said Meghan Nalbo, Nepal Country Representative at The Asia Foundation and Bishnu Adhikari, governance project lead, in a joint email interview.

“The recent instances of citizen activism appear to be a sign of filling a gap that is not being effectively met by their local governments or any other higher authorities in the country. Citizens are now more aware of the performance, or lack thereof, by their federal, provincial, and local governments as a result of free media reporting and an increasing access to and use of social media,” they wrote.

Those information sources are also revealing “increasing collusion of political interests with local or national contractors”, say Adhikari and Nalbo.

In many cases local governments are not acting because there is confusion over which level of government is supposed to regulate such things as water and land, says Khem Raj Nepal, who was secretary in the former ministry of local development. The jurisdiction is shared among the three levels of government but there is a lack of clarity about the roles of each one, resulting in inertia and inaction.

“Governments commit to completing a particular project within a certain timeframe and budget, but when they do not deliver, and appear to be favouring other interests, people get frustrated,” adds Nepal.

Adhikari and Nalbo note that residents in some municipalities have been effective in convincing local governments to stop some plans, such as hiking local taxes and service fees, a trend that should grow. “Local governments would need to be more accountable and responsive,” they added.

Marty Logan